I don’t presume to know all the facts or answer the questions left hanging. What I can share is what we saw and what we felt. It is a subject so incredibly sensitive and complex, so I approach sharing our experience with a great deal of respectfulness for the lives lost.
Our morning on Friday started with final preparation of the bikes. Paul was getting them ride ready whilst I packed and brought him cups of tea, as he was forced to work in the rain. By midday we were set, so with some time to spare we decided to walk and see a bit of Vancouver.
We had been told of a great coffee shop in downtown, so headed there first. Being Nina’s birthday, I thought it would make a special birthday gift if I could find an instant photo shop to make prints of the portraits I had taken the night before. The barista told us the way and we headed off Downtown East…
We now know from Wikipedia that Downtown East is “notorious for its open-air drug trade, sex work, poverty and mental illness, homelessness, infectious disease, and crime.” The decline is allegedly due to a combination of things: ‘an influx of drugs, de-institutionalisation of mentally ill people and no funding for social housing.’
Respectfully, the best way I can think of how to describe what we experienced is ‘like walking through a zombie movie’: People staring vacantly as they cowered on a sidewalk, scratching themselves raw, rocking and moaning at demons in their head or shouting abuse at something only they could see. It reminded me of the time I worked in a psychiatric hospital, but these people were more vulnerable and out on the street. I noticed a man holding open a door, as he ushered two others inside. As we passed and the door closed, I noticed it had no handle on the outside. Shivers ran up my spine and I felt fearful for those who had entered. It was distressing and confronting to witness these scenes, feeling helpless and anxious for someone’s daughter, someone’s son.
We found our way to the waterfront, where we stood in awe of the view across the bay – snow capped mountains in the mist. We walked and walked and walked some more, talking about what we had seen earlier, trying to shake it out of our heads.
In the evening we spotted a little bar which looked nice. As I stood outside looking at the menu a man arrived, came over to me and said: “I highly recommend you join us, the food is great and I should know, as I’m one of the musicians playing tonight!”
We had a wonderfully relaxed evening, listening to the band playing jazz and drinking a beautiful Australian Shiraz. During a break the lead singer came over, saying hi to the crowd. He identified us as hailing from Australia but once he heard more about our journey we soon became “mini celebrities” being introduced to other locals. He presented us with two of his CDs and copious hugs and smiles.
Going home our thoughts were about how very differently two worlds played out today. At the station we spotted a poster advertising the ‘Take Home Naloxone Program’. Naloxone is an antagonist medication that reverses the effects of an overdose of opioids such as heroin, fentanyl, codeine or morphine. Wikipedia explained the context: “As of 2017, critical issues (in downtown Vancouver) are an epidemic of fentanyl overdoses, a shortage of low-cost rental housing, and a high prevalence of severe mental illness which often co-occurs with addiction.“
Even now, our thoughts are still very much about what we had witnessed the previous day. It had simply been so confronting, seeing so many lives lost to addiction and in the cold, out on the street. We concluded that the problem likely exists in our own country, albeit it on a different scale. But perhaps as ‘locals’ we just never venture out to places where we’d see it like we had.